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Whither Britain?

IN the not so good old days in Britain a little more than a century ago, almost everyone worked from dawn until dark on the land, in factories and offices, or in the houses of the rich. But when steam engines, telephones and the cinematograph came into their lives some visionaries foresaw the advent of a better life: the Industrial Revolution had begun. The aim of this was to relieve men and women from the routine drudgery in their daily work by finding ways in which this could be done mechanically. The transformation gradually took place and enabled many people to lead happier and less arduous lives.

Unfortunately, the plans for the creation of this wonderland did not succeed in practice. Our industries, after serving us well through two world wars, were in need of a complete overhaul and modernisation. We failed to provide this whereas Japan, about the size of Spain but with three times its population, managed to grow enough food for all and, by modernising its many industries through the use of computers and robots on a scale no other nation had visualised, revitalised the whole country and its people. By 1980 Japan had 47,000 robots in action, the USA had 3,200 and Europe had 7,000 of which Britain had 180.

Britain is now in the invidious position of not growing enough food for her own people, having almost three million unemployed and a monthly shortfall in overseas trading of around a billion pounds. There seem to be only two courses open to us in the future: to become a fairly comfortable self-sufficient island of a Robinson Crusoe type or, if we could, reorganise and revive our economy and raise it to a level of the flourishing countries in Europe.

Britain is not basically insolvent, but is at present in straitened circumstances because the best use is not being made of her natural assets. She has plenty of land, a good climate and could grow almost every form of food the country needs. So why are we importing thousands of tons of pig food a year from America? And why do we buy vast quantities of vegetables from France, Belgium and Holland? If, as many farmers here believe, growers on the continent are being paid huge subsidies which enable them to sell at prices so low that growing vegetables in England is not worthwhile, our government should have intervened and arranged a fair settlement through the EEC. The French farmers know how to deal with similar problems: they just block the roads with unwanted imported beef cattle. Perhaps we could do the same with cabbages!

This economic muddle is not new; it has been going on for about twenty years. Protectionism is not the answer: we should be able to compete without difficulty since the transportation is on our side. It must be that the French farmers are more enterprising than ours and our government is less efficient than theirs. As an example of this, the people of Brittany, where conditions are similar to those in Cornwall, were impoverished and demoralised in the 1960s through lack of employment. Today the people are prosperous, and Brittany is one of the richest regions in France due to the foresight and energy of a few men who formed a co-operative organisation for growing and selling vegetables. Every man, woman and child was mobilised. By loans and a levy of a centime on every cauliflower produced they were able to build a ship to take their produce to Plymouth. As they now auction some 420,000 tons of cauliflowers annually and there is a similar commission on carrots, shallots, tomatoes and artichokes and on the three million iceberg lettuces they sell each year, they were able to form 'Brittany Ferries' which keeps several ships busy crossing the Channel.

Perhaps the most illogical and unsound importation into Britain is that of timber. While we have millions of trees dying on their feet around us, we buy ninety per cent of our requirements from Finland, Sweden and Alaska. Our trees should be felled when mature, used and others planted in their place. Even our oaks are not sacrosanct as some people think. They served us well when, at the beginning of the last century, we needed timber to build ships for the navy during one of the wars against France. They could come to our rescue again now.

Wood has been the world's main fuel for many centuries but, although it has been replaced largely by coal and oil, the high cost and the irregular availability of them has caused periodical temporary reversions to it. It will certainly continue to be the main source of energy in countries where quick growing trees flourish. For example, the Philippines have half a million acres of Ipil-Ipil trees which can reach the height of a three-storey building in two years. Although Britain could grow more trees as a forest crop she has neither sufficient land nor the climate to emulate them. We must therefore work out our own salvation by studying the lines on which our neighbours are developing alternative sources of energy since the discovery that the carbon dioxide released when coal or oil are burnt is destroying our atmosphere and, eventually, the universe.

While bringing order into our agricultural industry by planning a fuller use of the land on a rotational cropping basis through which we could feed ourselves, we must revive all the other industries in which we once excelled. We could do so, with two provisos. One is that everyone employed in a manufacturing business, be he or she the office clerk, machine operator or managing director, should have a personal interest in it. The second is that there must be a plentiful, reliable and inexpensive supply of energy. When nuclear power became available it was expected that it would supersede all others but its dangers have since been realised as well as the fabulous cost of dismantling a plant at the end of its safe life--about twenty-five years -- so we must look further afield for alternatives.

The first means by which man obtained heat and light was by the burning of waste and by harnessing wind, water and the sun. Our neighbours on the continent and scientists in the USA have been carrying out wide-ranging experiments in the further use of these and we could benefit from their work. Taking waste first, there are now more than two hundred plants in Europe for burning rubbish to generate electricity. Paris, for example, was producing the equivalent of 480.000 barrels of oil a year ten years ago while Munich and Rotterdam were each making even more.

Sweden and Denmark are leading in the development of wind power in Europe but Russia, Germany and Holland are following closely, all using the strong winds which blow across the North Sea. To show what these wind turbines can achieve, three of them in the State of Washington produce sufficient electricity for 2,500 homes. Sweden has planned to construct 3,300 of them which are calculated to generate as much electricity as seven large nuclear reactors.

When will Britain join this happy band? Our prospects are summarised thus by 'The Worldwatch Institute': 'If capital from the valuable oil being pumped from the North Sea were invested in wind farms along the northern and western coast of the United Kingdom, this could help secure the country's long term energy supplies'.

France is not a windy country so she is concentrating on the development of small mini-hydro projects for which 80,000 sites have been selected along her streams and rivers. Britain could do the same and follow the example of China where there are 87,000 of these small plants in operation generating electricity. France is also making increasing use of rooftop heaters to collect the warmth of the sun. Whereas in 1974 they had only 20,000 of these, they are now manufacturing about half a million a year. We could halve our electricity bills by fitting these solar panels to our rooves and insulating our walls. This has been tested in the coldest part of Canada where it has been shown that a house can be comfortably warmed for as little as $40 a year.

To summarise the situation, energy derived from wind, water, the sun and geothermal heat are all valuable but localised and insufficient to meet the worldwide needs if nuclear power and oil and coal are to be displaced. Photovoltaic electricity may become available worldwide in time, but there is a simpler, proven and universally available fuel -- methane gas. This can be made easily anywhere in the world in any quantity and it can perform any task now done by coal or oil. China has been raised from poverty to prosperity by it, and so could we. It is made by fermenting manure, sewage and trash such as straw, weeds and leaves in covered air-tight pits known as 'digesters'. When the gas formed has been released for storage in tanks, the residual mass is a valuable compost fertilizer.

Production started in the Sichuan Province where, by 1974, there were 30,000 digesters in operation. It soon spread throughout the southern provinces and, by 1978, some seven million plants were in use nationwide. Plans were then made for the completion of twenty million by 1980 and seventy million by 1985. As a typical digester produces about 34 cubic feet of methane gas a day for seven or eight months of the year, it has been estimated that China's production is equivalent to twenty-two million tons of hard coal.

In some places where supplies of straw or other vegetable trash are insufficient, water hyacinths are being grown and, off the coast of Southern California, giant kelp is being cultivated for this purpose. The feasibility of this was investigated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration which reported as follows: 'One proposal calls for funnelling the sewage from urban communities into large lagoons where water hyacinths would use the nutrients in the sewage as fertilizer, thus converting an otherwise wasted resource into usable energy. Such a system has an impressive energy-yield potential; one acre of sewage-enriched warm water can produce several tons of water hyacinths each day, enough to yield between 3,500 and 7,000 cubic feet of methane'.

Methane gas could provide the light at the end of the tunnel. It is a readily available and cheap source of energy which would enable our industries to develop and compete on the world markets. Furthermore the making of it would supplant the present shameful practice of throwing sewage into our rivers and the sea where it pollutes the beaches and kills the fish.

Is it not time the business world and government (both national and local) began work along these lines?

W. E. Crosskill was educated at Repton and Cambridge. In 1928 he went to East Africa where farming in Tanzania and Kenya was interrupted by six years as Lt.-Col. during WWII, fighting in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Burma. In addition to farming, he managed a hotel, taught French at a local school, was elected as a member of parliament for his farming area and then became Minister of Tourism/Forests/Game/Fisheries between 1956-60 in the then Kenya Government. He is the author of The Two Thousand Mile War (R. Hale, 1980) and First Beginning (Highgate -- Beverley, Yorks, 1987).
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Title Annotation:the effects of the industrial revolution
Author:Crosskill, W.E.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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